“Oh Bachchoo, pity and cry for poor mankind
Who discovered several way to be blind
Blind to truth and blind to beauty
Blind to the message of the stars above
Blind to dharma, blind to duty
And blind not to, but blindly in love.”
From Pyar Kiya, Abh Karna Kya? by Bachchoo
Let us ponder, gentle reader, on the word “revolution”: It’s certainly what the planets do around the sun. But historically, socially, it has been applied to changes in who controls societies -- a change, but not in the gentle way that Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris took over from Donald Trump. A revolution, historically, involves blood.
Bloody Myanmar today is not a revolution, it is an imposed change of regime, best described as a fascist military coup. The word did apply to England in the seventeenth century, to France in the eighteenth and to Russia and China in the twentieth. These countries overthrew the governance by one class and replaced it with another, who shed the blood of the first. Oliver Cromwell’s side in Britain defeated the Cavaliers, cut off Charles Stuart’s head and declared the country a republic. In France, power passed from the monarchy to the nascent bourgeoisie.
In Russia and China, both predominantly peasant countries, power passed from monarchy and an inheriting feudal class to a single party and its obedient and self-serving members.
None of these, though two of them claim the title, can be called Marxist or Communist revolutions. The latter two have, inevitably, ended up -- one as a mafiocracy and the other a stiflingly dictatorial state-capitalist country. The revolution, as Karl Marx had envisaged it, is yet to overtake us -- if not soon, eventually.
Meanwhile, the twentieth century had experienced the “revolution” of decolonisation. The colonial rulers of Europe, who had for three hundred previous years ruthlessly exploited -- and perhaps brought some forms of progress and some benefits -- to a number of Asian and African nations, were compelled to leave them to be governed by their own populations.
India, Ghana, Indonesia and myriad others were “decolonised” in this manner. The captains and the European Kings departed.
The slave trade, one of the cruellest episodes of man’s inhumanity to man, can’t strictly be called “colonialism”. There is though, in Britain today, a socio-political movement dedicated to banning words, toppling statues and doing they-don’t-quite-know-what to buildings and places associated with the slave trade. This movement, supported by several British institutions such as universities, the National Trust (which is something like the Archaeological Survey of India), the British Library and the curriculum prescribers for schools, is labelled “decolonisation”.
I have no quarrel with such sentiments but wonder about the word. In my long-forgotten and happy youth, my father, a military officer was transferred to Kanpur and we lived in a house on Havelock Road. I am sure that the name has been charged now, as Havelock was a general who had fought to suppress what used to be called the “Sepoy Mutiny” of India, but which we must, in this decolonising era, refer to as the First War of Independence. Down with Havelock Road meyrey yaaron! Let’s rename it something like Aditya Yogi Marg -- if it hasn’t already been changed.
We are aware that the colonial statues of Queen Victoria and other major Raj figures have been removed from our cities. This is not seen by anyone (sorry Zareer Masani?) as a regrettable move. Of course, the Raj was and is part of India’s history, but then isn’t all history -- f*** the truth of the centuries and who did what to whom -- to make the people in power at present feel good?
In India or Africa, it’s easy peasy. We can easily change the names and demolish the statues. We were the victims, and we are triumphant in our justifications. In Britain it’s a little more problematic. It’s a fact that cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow were built on profits from the slave trade. I think gentle readers would agree that dynamiting the buildings and precincts of these existing cities and reducing them to the rubble of the cities of, say, Syria today, would be tragic and unnecessary.
Of course, the texts that teach history to children everywhere should tell the truth. But the truth in a historical context always begs the question --“whose truth?”
In Britain, and in the other colonising countries, there are now swathes of the population from their ex-colonies. They are now permanent citizens of the ex-colonising countries and a part of the vociferous and globalised community engaged in self-expression.
I sincerely believe that revolutions that really make a difference to the lives of ordinary people lives are not linguistic -- the banning of this or that word. Neither will the banning of depictions, the renaming of roads or museums cause any real material advance in a community’s future. These gestures have, however, proved to be the rallying points for people who desire “change” all over the world.
The facts of history are petrified. Britain was a slave-trading and slave-owning nation. Several of its cities were built on the profits of this trade. Yes, the curriculum in schools will have to accommodate the truth of this era of history and alleviate some of its horror with the fact that many Europeans, through moral conviction, battled against slavery and eventually managed to prevail in abolishing it.
Tumbling statues, renaming buildings and streets doesn’t wipe out the injustices that the names and memorials represent. Can they really “decolonise” our history or merely pull the niqab over its ugly face?